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Taste

The ‘Extinction’ Of Bananas Shows Us Why Our Food System Needs Help

The good news? One expert’s solution involves eating more food.

Bananas, as we know them, could soon be no more.

According to a new report out last month, the popular Cavendish banana is now at risk of extinction thanks to the spread of a new strain of Panama disease, the same lethal fungus that already wiped out the previously dominant banana variety, the Gros Michel, in the 1960s. It is almost impossible to eradicate.

The news has implications beyond the banana market. As environmental journalist Simran Sethi argues in a new book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, what’s happening with bananas is just one of many examples of an international food system that has lost much of its biodiversity. The system, instead, relies on monocultures where a single crop is planted in a field at any given time, which makes farmers particularly vulnerable to diseases and extreme weather that can wipe out entire crops.

In researching her book, Sethi traveled around the world to learn how some of her favorite foods were made and saw firsthand how monocultures are threatening that very process, endangering crops near and dear to our hearts.

Sethi recently spoke with The Huffington Post about her journey and what we, the world’s eaters, can do to ensure our favorite foods are still around for the next generation.

The Huffington Post: What do you make of the articles on bananas going extinct -- obviously this is not a new problem, but this was clearly off a lot of peoples’ radar. Why do you think that’s the case?

Simran Sethi: I think consumers, and I do include myself in that category, are insulated from a lot of what happens on farms, and on the ground the people always absorbing the most risk in the food supply chain are farmers. We’ve known about this since we replaced the Gros Michel banana in the 1960s with the one we eat now, the Cavendish. But the difference now is that there’s nothing at the ready to quickly replace the Cavendish. It’s a different string of the same fungus that wiped out the Gros Michel. It’s a mold so it’s more complicated than a disease. It’s how we grow it and the politics surrounding it.

Simran Sethi believes what is happening with bananas is a bellwether for the international food system.
Simran Sethi believes what is happening with bananas is a bellwether for the international food system.

HP: Why is this so important beyond bananas?

SS: We grow crops in monocultures that we know will, eventually, fail but producers are all just hoping it won’t happen in their lifetime. They don’t have a lot of room to play with this until consumers start demanding different varieties and businesses expand their supply chain. But the banana is the bellwether of this. It’s showing us what climate change is doing to food right here, right now. And that’s why biodiversity is so important. We would never put 100 percent of our money in just one stock in an investment portfolio, but that’s exactly what’s happening with food. We're investing all our resources in just a handful of crops -- but with the variability of climate change, we don't know exactly what will happen to them.

HP: I wonder if there’s a certain ideas of inevitability with this too, like, bananas are everywhere and we can’t imagine that ever not being the case, that the scientists working on this will surely figure it out in time for our supply to go undisturbed.

SS: Right, technology will save us, that’s the thing. That we’ll figure out climate change and inject water into clouds and it will rain. We’ll genetically engineer the banana. It’s really disempowering to wait for someone else to figure this stuff out, especially when we have solutions, speaking specifically about food, right here in biodiversity. And it’s not that the scientists aren’t working feverishly on this right now. They are trying to make a genetically-engineered banana that will withstand the challenges we’re facing right now, but we have the capacity to grow thousands of bananas. So, why aren’t we tapping into that diversity right now? Every monoculture is a ticking time bomb, including those that are genetically engineered. At some point, anything being grown in monoculture will fail.

This is happening seed by seed and crop by crop. According to the FAO, more than 90 percent of our calories now come from 30 crops, so that’s something we have the capacity to change if we support famers in growing more diverse crops. The Cavendish is considered an inferior banana. The heirloom cacao in the chocolate we love is being replaced by a hybrid, CCN-51, and experts have compared its flavor to rusty nails. If we wait on this, the mediocrity will increase. The precious stuff that’s more delicious and often more nutritious takes more effort to grow, and that’s what’s disappearing. I think we deserve better and it’s in our grasp, so why not reach for it?

Thirty crops account for some 90 percent of the entire world's caloric intake, according to the FAO. Some 7,000 are available. This is what that looks like.
Thirty crops account for some 90 percent of the entire world's caloric intake, according to the FAO. Some 7,000 are available. This is what that looks like.

HP: The taste argument is an interesting approach to get people to care about these sometimes wonky issues. How do we do more of that?

SS: Almost all of us have seen those gorgeous heirloom tomatoes in the summer that actually taste like tomatoes. They’re not the hockey puck, perfect, weird, tasteless things called tomatoes we see in December. They’re funny shapes and colors. What conservationists have never considered is our role as eaters and I think it’s important. I’ve worked in environmentalism for more than a decade now and it was heartbreaking to talk about the same thing over and over again. I thought it had to change so I wanted to talk about this story through one of the most intimate acts: eating.

Food holds memory and it’s our story. It’s who we are. It’s Thanksgiving, for better or worse, it’s the wedding cake, it’s what gets you through the divorce. It’s all those things. I felt like this was a real opportunity to talk about conservation through the mouth. I’m not the first to talk about it this way, but no one talks about it through the stuff we already love, the things that get me through what gets me out of bed every day -- coffee -- and the chocolate that got me through writing this book. This is a really opportunity to talk about biodiversity through something that is an anchor for so many people.

HP: You sound surprisingly optimistic about all of this. Why is that? What can the average person do to help fix this problem?

SS: A team of researchers led by Colin Khoury coined the idea of this “global standard diet" -- mostly wheat, soy and palm oil, based on an analysis of 50 years of data on crops eaten by 98 percent of the population. He said that anything we eat outside of that is a revolutionary act. It’s about seeking out diverse varieties and we’re already doing it -- that’s craft beer! It’s eating olive oil. It’s asking what the origin of this coffee is and having a conversation with the barista who can tell you. We’re our own tastemakers and we should find what’s delicious to us. If you’re eating a Big Mac, know the supply chain behind that and own that.

By doing this, we can hold businesses accountable and start to learn more about conservation. We don’t have to wait for a scientist to breed a new variety or wait for policy. The answer is to go to the farmer’s market, cook something weird or buy the fancy chocolate. I say this with deep sincerity that this is what will transform biodiversity. And what we get from it is fucking fantastic -- deliciousness and getting our culture back, embracing the diversity of who we are.

Joseph Erbentraut covers promising innovations and challenges in the areas of food and water. In addition, Erbentraut explores the evolving ways Americans are identifying and defining themselves. Tips? Email joseph.erbentraut@huffingtonpost.com.

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